TORONTO - UFC Night in Canada arrives on Saturday and somehow it just doesnít feel right.
There isnít that first-time exhilaration, which was part-party, part-carnival, part-anticipation the first time the Ultimate Fighting Championship came to a crazed and sold-out Rogers Centre.
There isnít that second-time, weíre-here-to-stay feeling in the so-called ultimate fighting capital of the whole-wide world there was when the emerging cross-over star, Jon Jones, came to fight at the sold-out Air Canada Centre for the very first time.
So here we are at the third Toronto stop on the never-ending UFC Tour, and not all is well or sold-out, neither of which appeared possible eight months ago. The UFC, not just in Toronto, but all over North America, has hit a wall of sorts. It is no longer the next big thing. It is more just another thing.
Some of the problems could have been avoided: Some have been circumstantial. This is, in the weird way the UFC numbers its shows, UFC 152. Thatís basically so know one confuses it with UFC 151, which never happened because of injuries and insubordination.
Jones was supposed to headline that show against Dan Henderson but Henderson got hurt. He just didnít think to tell anyone he was hurt, until it was too late to do much about it. Jones wasnít asked to fight a replacement in Chael Sonnen, he was told to fight him.
He said no. UFC boss Dana White went crazy, called Jones all kinds of names, threatened everything but his life, and reluctantly cancelled the show. Estimates are that the one cancellation cost the company $20 million.
That doesnít happen to a company which the owner, Lorenzo Fertitta, called ďthe most valuable sports franchise on the planet, more valuable than Manchester United, more than the New York Yankees, more than the Dallas Cowboys.Ē He told the esteemed New York Times that. On this day, we humbly disagree.
The UFC was one of those impossible-to-believe growth stories in these days of sports entertainment. It grew to be almost mainstream, amazingly without much support of mainstream media. It became huge, primarily because White made it and himself huge. And then it grew too much, too fast, faced too many obstacles.
UFC 152, the Toronto show, happens to be the seventh consecutive fight card in which a main card fight had to be changed, cancelled or re-introduced because of injury. The injuries have come in a year in which No. 1
attraction Brock Lesnar walked away, in which the uber-popular Georges St-Pierre wasnít healthy enough to fight, in which veterans staples and long-term staples such as Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell got too old to continue.
The pay-per-view numbers the company once bragged about have gone stagnant.
The television ratings on the Fox network, which was supposed to take the UFC more to the people, has yet to hit its stride.
And here is Jones, ready to defend his world title on Saturday, coming off a bout with drunk driving, a cancelled title fight, a public argument with his boss, and about that cross-over star thing, well, it hasnít exactly happened yet.
Sadly, even the card that follows Toronto, UFC 153 in Brazil has already been ravaged by injuries ó so the difficulty wonít end when the company leaves Toronto after the weekend.
This doesnít mean the UFC is in any kind of serious trouble, it means it has hit a roadblock or two and is no longer this hard-to-explain meteoric star. Those who know the game best say it may be time for UFC to take a step backwards now, analyze where they are, where they arenít going, take a deep breath and do some introspection, and compress its schedule ever so slightly.
Instead of having 12 bouts on a card, why not nine?
Instead of having too many pay-per-view cards, why not be more selective, and in this case take a page from the dreaded boxing world and do three or four huge events a year rather than push people ó and bars ó to have this happen so often it comes over exposed.
This is a weekend test for Toronto, but more than that, another test for the UFC.
This is a company clearly at the crossroads. Itís not anywhere near trouble but clearly there are challenges for the UFC.
Now and for the future.